The Mushroomers

I wrote this short story this weekend when we were all worrying about Sandy. I wanted to get some writing done before the power went out. I really like it. I haven’t done heavy edits, but I don’t think it really needs much.

It started out as the intro to a larger story but took a life of its own. Let me know what you think.

This work is copyright 2012 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved

The skinny man griped, “That crook said, ‘Follow the red blazes. You can’t miss the cliffs,’ he said!”

The old man wheeled on the lout. He was nimble for one up to his knees in muck. One fist raised in the air. He warned, “You better stop your gods damned complaining Glen. I’m sick of listening to your constant whining. Shut your face yourself or I’ll save you the trouble.”

The leader of the trio said, “George is right, Glen.” Glen scowled but had enough sense to leave it at that. “Besides, it’s your fault we lost the trail in the first place,” Steven reminded the merchant.

Emboldened by Steven’s support, George added “if you kept that cotton in your ears, none of this would have happened. Jordan would still be alive.” Glen looked shamed at the reminder as George drove the nail home. “You owed him your life. Without his tracking skills, you’d be stewing in some siren’s gullet by now. And how’d you repay him? You got him killed!”

“That’s enough George,” Steven reprimanded. “He gets the point. And besides, you can hardly blame Glen for the bite of a viper.”

Glen’s scowl darkened as the three trudged through the swamp in silence.

It was impossible to tell time under the thick tree tops. They hadn’t seen the sun peek through in three days. Their drinkable water ran out earlier in the day.

Steven called a halt. “It must be getting late. We should make camp over on that bar.” He led the way, hopping from half submerged reefs to mangrove roots. They waded in brine up to their waists the final distance.

Glen pitched his lean-to and suggested, “If we can make a fire and boil some water…”

George cut him off, “There you go again. You’d build a beacon for every creature within a mile.” Cursing Glen’s stupidity he continued, “You know we can’t drink the water, even if we boil it.”

Steven said, “You two can calm down. Glen is half right. We should build a fire.”

George’s eyes opened wide. He asked, “You agree with him?”

Glen smirked and Steven responded, “I do.” Steven then told Glen, “Go and find the driest wood you can but don’t wander far.” After Glen was out of earshot, Steven told George, “Something has been following us all day.”

George sighed, “You think it’s her?” Steven nodded. “So what’s the plan then?”

“Not much of a plan, but I’ve heard she doesn’t like fire. She didn’t attack us in the daylight. Maybe she won’t with a big enough fire blazing.”

George said, “I’m going to go help Glen gather wood.”

“Good idea,” replied Steven.

A half hour passed. Dusk had settled and a thick fog rose. George and Glen had brought back a good pile of downed branches and twigs. George apologized to Steven, “Not all of it’s dry.”

Steven didn’t seem too worried. “Even wet wood burns if you get the fire hot enough.” He winked at the old man and smiled.

The old man quipped, “Glad to see you’re so optimistic oh fearless leader.”

While the two men had been out, Steven had dug a hole in the ground. He had placed a cooking pot in its center. His leather cloak spanned the pit, tanned side down. It was secured in place with heavy rocks around the edge. One smaller stone sat in the center of the cloak just above the pot below.

“What’s that for?” asked Glen.

George responded for Steven, “Water.”

Steven added, “The moisture in the dirt gets trapped. It condenses on the cloak and rolls down into a pot I placed below. I should have enough to quench my thirst in an hour or so. If I were you, I’d recommend doing the same.”

“Can I borrow your shovel?” asked the merchant.

“I don’t have one. Used my hands,” Steven responded showing his scraped and muddy digits.

Glen’s scowl returned as he scuttled off to dig his own waterhole.

George looked at Steven and grinned. Steven reached into his pack and tossed the old man his spade.

As the other two men prepared their own waterholes, Steven built the fire. Soon there was a crackling blaze at the center of their camp.

George returned and sat by the fire to warm his bones. He took a strip of dried jerky from his jacket pocket. “Can we trust him with a watch tonight?” George asked Steven.

Steven responded, “I don’t trust him. Do you want the first watch or the second?”

“I’ll take second watch.” George took a nice sized bite of the meat. “I wake up earlier and earlier in my old age anyway.”

Steven smiled. He politely warned, “Be careful with that jerky. Its salt will dehydrate you.”

The old man rolled his eyes at that. He set Steven’s mind at ease. “It’s heat cured. Doesn’t last as long, but won’t make me thirst as much as the standard fare. You just make sure to wake me if she shows her ugly face.”

Glen had just walked back into the campsite. He overheard their last exchange and asked, “Her?”

Steven answered, “Don’t worry about George. The old man is growing befuddled.”

Glen didn’t look appeased but didn’t press the issue.

They all ate their rations in silence. The sounds of the swamp were eerie. Occasional bubbles of gas belched up from the muck. Frogs croaked and crickets chirped. Fish and eels gulped insects that skimmed the still water. Over it all, the fire spit and hissed.

Suddenly a great splash caused them all to perk up. Glen actually jumped up and looked about for somewhere to run. “What was that?” he asked, terror clear on his face.

“Shut up,” hissed both George and Steven.

“You said, ’she’! What aren’t you telling me?” cried the merchant.

Steven asked him, “If I tell you, will you sit down by the fire like a big boy?”

George didn’t answer him, but slowly sat back down. After a few minutes of quiet he muttered to himself, “Probably just a branch that fell. That’s all it was – a branch.”

Steven said, “No. It’s the siren. She followed us all day.”

Glen began to sniffle and sob. George couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up, walked over to Glen. He knocked him out cold with one strong fist to the face.

Steven reprimanded, “You didn’t have to do that.” He relented, “At least if we all die, you gave him some dignity. I’d hate to watch him begging for his life fruitlessly.”

George sat back down by the fire. He asked, “Why doesn’t she just call to us?”

Steven answered, “Because she already has us trapped. Now she just plays with us.”

“What a bitch!” George yelled.

She answered his taunt with cackling laughter. The sound reverberated throughout them bringing rise to childhood fears neither had felt in many years. Both men were battle hardened and kept control of their wits.

“What direction?” asked Steven.

George answered, “I couldn’t place it. Maybe your 6?”

Steven said, “Same here. It could have been my 12 for all I could tell.”

The pair sat staring over one another’s shoulders. Each held swords draped in their laps. Time dragged by. Their eyes grew heavy as their minds ran wild. Thoughts of impending death coupled with exhaustion gave rise to hallucinations. Phantom splashes echoed in their ears. Ghostly apparitions hovered on the edges of their vision. George started to drift but Steven woke him with a word. Only a few minutes later, George returned the favor. Sometime late in the night, both men collapsed from their exhaustion.

Steven woke with a start. He looked around. Glen was still unconscious by the glowing coals of what had been their blazing fire. George was nowhere to be found.

“Shit!” he hissed. He yelled, “George! Old man! You out there?”

Only the normal sounds of the swamp answered.

He shook Glen. “Wake up!”

Glen stirred. He opened the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut from the old man’s punch. “What? Who?” He stammered on.

“Glen, wake the fuck up!” Steven jerked him repeatedly as the merchant started to fall back unconscious, but it was useless. The man’s wits were still rattled from the blow.

Steven threw another log on the fire. The driest wood had already been burned. It smoked for some time before it finally caught flame. After the fire was lit, Steven retrieved the water that had collected under his cloak. He drank.

Steven’s mind reeled from the loss of his old friend. He hoped his death was swift. He expected it was not. Sirens were cruel creatures. They tormented their victims, sometimes for days. What they did with them afterwards was unknown.

The sky lightened. Dawn had arrived. Steven broke camp.

Glen shot awake. “What’s going on? Where’s Jordan?” He then winced as the throbbing in his head nearly doubled him over. “Why does my face hurt?”

Steven just snorted at him in response.

Glen slowly stood, bewildered. He touched his face. “You hit me? Why did you hit me?”

“George hit you. Gather up your shit. We’re leaving.”

Perplexed, he obeyed with obvious discomfort. “I shit myself. I need to clean up first.”

“No need. You’ll be wading through worse soon enough,” Steven replied.

Glen looked around. It dawned on him he wasn’t on the forest trail hunting for rare mushrooms. “Where are we? How did we get here? Where are George and Jordan?”

“Dead,” Steven answered flatly.

“Dead? What do you mean dead? We were just on the red blazed trail last night! What in the world happened?”

Steven growled, “You happened!” He continued, “And that wasn’t last night you idiot. That was four nights ago! You took out the cotton. Jordan tracked you into these gods forsaken swamps. He got bit by a snake. We couldn’t find our way back out without our tracker. The siren killed George last night. It’s just you and me now. Gather up your shit, we leave here in five minutes.”

Glen’s britches bloomed fresh as he stood motionless.

“I can leave you here if you’d rather.”

Glen ran about stuffing his belongings in his pack. He stepped on his leather cape and fell into the pit below. His ankle twisted and he screamed out in pain. He pulled himself up and said, “What the hell was that for?”

“Water,” Steven answered. “You ready yet?”

“Water?” asked Glen as he limped about favoring his ankle.

Steven thrust a half full skin at George. “Here, have George’s, he doesn’t need it anymore.”

Puzzled, Glen accepted the offering and guzzled.

Steven berated, “Drink slowly! It’s all you’ve got.”

Glen choked spitting the precious liquid down his shirt. He moaned, “No more water?”

Steven didn’t waste his breath with an answer. “Let’s go.”

They continued their trek walking in no known direction. After some time Glen asked, “Do you think she’s still following us?”

Steven responded truthfully, “Depends on how fast she eats. Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll catch up.”

Glen asked no more questions. Steven chose a direction he hoped would deliver them from their nightmare stalker. The air grew uncommonly cool for the season and their teeth chattered. Hypothermia was setting in.

Steven said, “I know it’s early. We need to make camp. We’ll die if we don’t dry out.”

Glen sheepishly followed to a large bank. It was similar to the one the trio had camped on last night. Glen set off to gather deadfall.

Steven thought to himself, He didn’t wait to be asked. Perhaps George knocked some sense into him last night. He set to digging three waterholes, one for each cloak the pair carried.

Steven indicated where the fire would be built. Glen stacked the pile of branches neatly. With guilt in his eyes Glen said, “Steven, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Steven replied, “As you should be.” He was going to voice his earlier thought, but decided Glen didn’t need the invective. As an afterthought he added, “Don’t dwell on it now. If we get out of this alive you’ll have ample time.”

In response to Steven’s remark, a loud thump sounded in their midst. Glen recoiled at the ghastly sight. George’s head stared up at him with bloody eye sockets. Arteries and bone dangled from the base of the skull. Ragged skin hung loose where the head and neck used to connect.

“As though she ripped it right off.” Steven voiced his analysis in macabre awe. “Better help me with the fire,” he added. “Not much daylight left.”

The two sat in front of the fire as the gloom turned to darkness. They didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later they heard thrashing in the water. The noise was heading toward them. Steven stood up. He held his sword low.

Her form was outlined in the fog. Features were indiscernible, but she was massive. She paused, seemingly content to let their fear feed her. Glen whimpered. She dropped on fours and charged.

Steven swung his sword as she closed in. The stroke was masterful. Twisting with inhuman speed she evaded his blow. On her backswing she knocked the blade from his hands. It flew in a great arc and was lost to the swamp’s depths. She cackled with glee as the two men fell backwards.

Steven tripped on a root and fell into the fire. He screamed and rolled in agony as his skin was charred by the coals.

Glen fell to his knees and begged the monster for his life. He pleaded to all the gods he ever prayed to and some he had not. The beast crept toward him, drinking in his anguish. She reared up and roared. Glen stood motionless on his knees as he awaited his end. She lunged for the kill and was turned aside as Steven shoved a flaming branch into her eye. Her agonized shriek filled the air as she batted the torch away. This time Steven’s grip was true.

She tore off into the swamp. The Siren splashed and screamed, “You will pay for this, wicked man!” Her howls of anger and pain slowly receded into the distance.

Shaken to his core all Glen could manage to say was, “Thank you.”

The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Neither man rested. Steven had been badly burned. The pain was too much to allow sleep. The dirt and wetness would sour his wounds. The burns would fester. He’d lose an arm and the other hand if he even survived.

Glen lay awake. He was terrified the Siren would return and exact vengeance. He feared her wrath as a result of her wounds. He silently wished she had killed him. The waiting and wonder was torture.

They set out just as the darkness started to lift. Neither man said much. They were at their wits end, broken. One more shove and neither would get up. They wandered aimlessly. Apathy replaced hope. They lumbered on not to escape, but simply to do something rather than sit and die.

Mid-morning they came upon the week’s first sign of civilization. “Too bad we weren’t here a few hundred years ago,” Steven barked at the irony.

A round stone tower rose out of the swamp.

“No door in,” said Steven after he walked its perimeter. “Lift me up. I’ll squeeze through a window.”

Glen silently obeyed. He cupped his hands together and Steven stepped in them. Steven grasped the window ledge and pulled himself up. Blisters broke open as his muscles strained, but he managed to pull himself through.

Once inside he dropped down onto a circular stair. It wound around the outside wall of the tower. He felt the stones shift slightly under his weight. He tread cautiously as he climbed up the stairs. The stair opened on a small circular room. It once had an iron ladder that led to the roof. The ladder’s only remaining evidence was rust stains on the wall. The tower’s roof was intact except for where the exit hatch used to be.

He walked down the stairs. The bottom floor was half submerged in the swamp. Strange mushrooms grew everywhere on the walls. Steven grabbed one and ate it. No reason to fear poison with that beast trailing us. A mushroom’s death would be more merciful anyway. He found the fungus tasted rather good and popped a couple more into his mouth. He climbed back up to the window and called out to Glen. “It’s as good a place to die in this swamp as any I’ve seen yet.” There was a central pillar supporting the upper floor. He tied his rope around it and dropped the other end out the window.

Glen grabbed onto the rope and readied himself to climb up. Steven shouted down, “Not so fast. We need some wood to build a fire. I’m in no shape for gathering it. If you want in, you’ll tie your pack to the rope and fill it with wood a few times.” Glen turned away dejectedly. He tied his pack and went to gather as much deadfall as he could find.

After three trips filling his pack, Steven let Glen and their belongings join him in the tower.

“Look downstairs, mushrooms!” Steven said. “And they’re tasty too! Tastiest morsels I’ve had in days for sure.”

Glen was surprised at Steven’s change of mood. He walked down the stairs and inspected the mushrooms. Nothing I’ve ever seen, he wondered. Glen was a master mushroomer. Finding some black toadstools was the whole reason he’d set out on this trek in the first place. A bushel of the rarities would fetch quite the price. Gourmet chefs from the finest inns to castle keeps paid gold bits for a quality batch. The fact he’d never seen such a specimen before caused his mind to race. Are they poisonous? Steven said he already tried one. Probably doesn’t matter. We’ll likely die here anyway. Glen grabbed a few and walked back up. He joined Steven beside the small fire. “Eat one and I’ll believe you” he said as he held one out.

Steven grabbed and ate it without acknowledging the insult to his honor.

Glen sighed and ate the other two. “These are good,” he remarked. Feeling moderately safe for once, both men drifted to sleep by the fire.

They woke up to a roar of rage. It was pitch dark outside. The fire had burned itself out. Neither man even bothered to rise. If she got in, they were done for. There was nothing they could do to keep her out. Their survival this night was completely at the whim of the tower. Both men rejected the fact that death circled them. They fell back asleep.

The next day Glen climbed down to fetch more wood and the water that collected overnight. He had to venture further than the previous day for the wood. He was disheartened to find the Siren had destroyed their waterhole supplies. He returned with the bad news, but all Steven did was shrug. They had a breakfast of mushrooms and the few scraps of rations that remained.

Glen realized out loud, “Your wounds are healing remarkably well!”

Steven looked down at his hands. His eyes widened in wonderment. He looked back up at Glen. “As is your face. Must be the mushrooms,” Steven responded. “They must be medicinal. A lot of good they’ll do us in the long run though.”

The men spent the day resting. They even talked a little as their spirits lifted ever so slightly. Glen learned about Steven’s past as a conscript in the king’s army. He’d received high honors for one born so low.

Steven grew to understand Glen’s own motivations. He had a wife at home. She required expensive presents to return his affections. He had a son with her who was almost a man’s age. Glen confided he wasn’t sure if the boy was really his. “Jason is really big. Look at me. Am I big? Do I have red hair?”

They conversed into the night as they awaited her return.

More than half the night passed without a sound. Her roar of triumph tore through the stone building. Steven jumped up and bolted over to the stairwell opening. There she was below. She shook her great body. Mud flung about. She must have tunneled underneath, Steven realized in horror.

She saw him and grinned as she leapt up the stairs. She reached the top with a final jump. The stones buckled under her massive weight. Half the floor and all of the stairs gave out underneath her and Steven.

Glen leaned over and saw she was trapped under a pile of rubble. Steven lay on top of her struggling form. A dagger of rock jutted straight out his back. Steven looked oblivious to his own mortal wound. He jammed his thumbs into her eye sockets. He pushed with all of his strength as the thumbs sank deep into her skull. Blood squirted and flowed over his hands and he still kept driving his thumbs deeper. Her body stopped struggling under the rocks and began to convulse in its death throes. Steven sensed her death and relaxed his own struggles.

Glen stood motionless looking down at the scene. The Siren was clearly dead. Steven was soon to follow. He didn’t know what to do. He was alone now, lost in a vast swamp. He noticed Stevens arm beckoning him. Glen carefully dropped into the room below and waded over to Steven.

Steven motioned Glen close and Glen complied.

Steven said, “Do me a favor.”

Glen nodded and said, “Anything.”

“If you survive this mess, bring my daughter her mother’s ring.” Steven, reached inside his shirt and pulled forth a red velvet bag. It was tied around his neck with a long cord. He handed it to Glen and motioned for him to put it on. Glen tied it around his own neck and stuffed it under his shirt. Steven smiled. “Tell her Roger is a good young man. He’ll make a fine husband. Tell her everything I owned is her inheritance. She should be able to provide a sufficient dowry.” Steven relaxed for several minutes. His breath came in shallow gasps. He said one last thing, “Tell her I’m sorry that I can’t give her hand away.” He took one last breath and heaved himself off the jutting stone. His blood flowed out into the pool below.

As I said, this started out as the intro to a larger story. I have more written following this, but I don’t like it as much. I will end up tossing out most of it and writing a proper sequel to this short. I hope you liked it. Let me know in the comments section either way. I honestly want to hear your feedback whether positive or negative. I have very thick skin.



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